COLUMBIA — At seven minutes to midnight on Wednesday, Rena Niehoff shouted, "I did it!" And the people around her burst into applause.
Niehoff was the last person in her group to finish her work for National Novel Writing Month, commonly referred to as NaNoWriMo or NaNo.
NaNoWriMo is "the world's largest writing challenge and nonprofit literary crusade," according to its news release. It challenges both professional and amateur writers across the world to sit at their desks and finish a 50,000-word fiction piece during the month of November. Anyone who finishes gets a downloadable certificate.
"The real prize for winning is that you got 50,000 words of your novel written, which is a big thing," said Art Smith, the coordinator of Columbia's writing group.
This year is the second year that Smith has taken part in Columbia's NaNoWriMo group. He finished last year with a little more than 50,000 words. This year, his word count hit 50,000 at 10:40 p.m. Wednesday.
Although some might think writing is an individual activity, Columbia participants have a tradition of writing together and hold a weekly gathering they call a "write-in." They meet at the ArtSmith Photography studio every Tuesday where they encourage each other to keep upping their word counts, share their anxiety, and most importantly, write.
About 616 people in Columbia signed up for the project this year, according to NaNoWriMo's website, and about 20 to 25 people went to the "write-ins" regularly.
"I'm surprised that the number (of people who signed up) almost doubled this year compared with last year," said Noah Medling, another coordinator of the writing group who has been organizing the event in Columbia for seven years and works at the Columbia Missourian.
Previously, the group gathered at Steak 'n Shake or Country Kitchen to work on their stories. This year, they kicked off the project at Country Kitchen at midnight on Nov. 1 and held the rest of the write-ins at Smith's studio.
What keeps participants coming
For many, NaNoWriMo is attractive because it pushes participants to write on a fixed deadline. Smith said he needs that deadline. He is writing a science fiction piece this year that tells a story about the interaction between a philosophy professor and a newly-invented search engine with artificial intelligence.
Since 2003, about 100 works created during NaNoWriMo have been published. One of them, "Water for Elephants," became a New York Times Best Seller. However, publication is not the ultimate goal for most of the writers. The process of creation and the joy of writing make November a special month for the participants.
"I had to come to the point that I agreed to myself that I was writing for me," said Jodie Jackson Jr., one of the participants. He thought his novel might end up being given as Christmas gift to people who he trusts to give him good critiques.
"This is a story that has been burying in my mind for 20 years," he said. The story is a mystery about a newspaper reporter who stumbles into a major gambling ring and becomes involved in a crime syndicate without being aware of it. It is actually based partially on Jackson's experience several years ago as a reporter for a weekly newspaper.
"In the past ten days, I have come up with things that I hadn't thought of in the last 20 years," Jackson said. "There are a lot of relationships, a lot of twists and turns in the middle that I have been really surprised to see."
During the write-ins, the group holds a small contest called "word war." It works like this: Whenever someone feels like adding some competition to the project and wants to boost word count, that person will shout, "who wants a word war?"
Anyone who responds will set a time limit and see who can write the most words in 10 minutes. It is usually the quietest moment during the write-ins; all you can hear is typing. The winner gets a sticker with a star on it. Niehoff has two stars, and Grace Fogle, a 16-year-old participant, has three.
"I can't not win," Niehoff said, "I'm very competitive." One of the reasons she keeps coming to the write-ins is the "rival" atmosphere there, and she considers the "word war" an extra bonus.
The challenge of 50,000 words
NaNoWriMo writers still have to deal with everyday life in November. Many obstacles can come up and slow them down.
Niehoff's two best friends got married this month, and she spent a week helping with the wedding and almost had no time to write. For Fogle, who finished her 50,000 words at 10:55 p.m. Wednesday, visiting relatives during Thanksgiving kept her away from her computer. However, both women were optimistic during the last moments of the project.
"I was going to quit, but (Smith) sent out a pep talk email and made me reconsider," Niehoff said.
Abe Odt, who managed to finish half of his novel in the last two days and reach 50,000 words at 11:25 p.m. Wednesday, said he also considered dropping out.
"Two days before the deadline, I was thinking about giving up, but then I tell myself, 'If I won’t make it, at least I want to try,' " he said.
The writing never really ends
Finishing NaNoWriMo doesn't mean it is the end of the novels or the end of the gathering.
"Last year, I finished the NaNo, but I didn't finish the story in time," Smith said.
Jackson said he still wants to go back to last year's work to expand and polish it.
The group will keep meeting Tuesday evenings to share chapters of their works, edit unfinished novels and spend time with friends.
"By the end of that month, I just made friends with a bunch of people here," Fogle said. "Now I go here because this is just what I'm used to doing, and I have friends here."